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Vicki B. Escarra

Vicki B. Escarra

Posted: October 22, 2010 09:32 AM

Let them eat cake.

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This argument against SNAP recipients using their benefits to purchase snack and other "unhealthy" foods is one I find disappointing.

Food insecurity and participation in federal food assistance programs does not make a person ignorant about good nutrition and healthy food choices.

While Feeding America focuses on distributing more fresh fruits and vegetables, we often hear from parents who rely on food pantries that their children really appreciate that their monthly food box contains the occasional offering of sweets or chips - not because they gobble up snack foods every chance they get, but because once in a while, it's nice for them get to have a special treat, like all of the other children whose parents can afford to buy those things.

In a time when more and more people are struggling to feed their families, Feeding America firmly believes our nation's primary focus must be on strengthening access to SNAP benefits for low-income individuals, promoting adequately funded benefits, and protecting the program from unnecessary stigma. That's why Feeding America has consistently opposed efforts to restrict the ability of SNAP recipients to make individual decisions regarding the types of foods to purchase for themselves and their families using their SNAP benefits.

Restricting food choices would add confusion to the program for both participants and retailers and bring stigma back to SNAP participation. Today, SNAP benefits are delivered entirely using Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), which has eliminated the stigma once associated with using paper food stamps at checkout. Limiting food choice could lead to confusion over newly ineligible items at the check-out line and to embarrassment for SNAP participants. If you think this isn't true, imagine a mother of three buying food for a birthday celebration for one of her children, only to find at check-out that she can't buy the cake or ice cream because it was deemed ineligible for SNAP program.

We all know that there are some foods that we should eat more of, like fruits and vegetables, and others that we should eat occasionally, like snacks and treats, and most nutritionists will tell you that all foods can have a place in a healthy diet, if they are consumed in the right amounts at the right times. Instead of making it harder for SNAP recipients to access federal nutrition programs by creating stigma and needlessly complicating their food choices, we need to improve access to federal nutrition programs and expand efforts to help SNAP participants make the right food choices for themselves and their families.

One way is through nutrition education - already a critical component of SNAP in many states. SNAP education efforts are aimed at increasing the everyday consumption of fruits, vegetable, whole grains, and low-fat milk products; promoting physical activity as a critical component of a healthy lifestyle; and encouraging a proper balance between calorie intake and expenditure. Looking at obesity rates across America, we could all use some nutrition education, not just SNAP recipients.

Another way to help SNAP recipients is through providing positive incentives. The federal government is already beginning to look at ways to incentivize nutritious purchases using SNAP benefits. As a result of the 2008 Farm Bill, $20 million was provided to USDA for the Healthy Incentives Pilot program (HIP). This pilot, which will begin next year in Massachusetts, will be used to evaluate health and nutrition promotion in SNAP to determine if point-of-sale incentives can be effective in increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables among SNAP recipients.

I recently joined the Sesame Workshop Advisory Board on Food Insecurity. The nation's long-time, childhood friend Cookie Monster has a mantra that I enjoy hearing Agriculture Secretary Vilsack refer to frequently: "There are "anytime" foods and there are "sometimes" foods."

Like most SNAP participants, Cookie Monster understands that cookies and other snacks are "sometimes" foods. And sometimes, SNAP recipients might want to purchase special treats for a birthday, chips for a school party, or cookies for their children to enjoy.

And sometimes, they might just want to eat cake.